3 March 2008

Charles Rosen - Piano Notes

Charles Rosen is, apparently, a world-renowned concert pianist and music critic. The fact that I didn't know that before I read the introduction to this book establishes my minimal knowledge of classical music. I am an ingenu, but a willing learner who has been going regularly to concerts on the South Bank for the last six months, expanding my repertoire as a listener, and my appreciation. There's inevitably a limit to my participation - I can't play an instrument, in fact my musical experience is limited to grade one piano (theory only) aged nine, and a term of clarinet, so the technicalities of musical performance are beyond me. I may know that a piece is hard to perform, and admire the audacity of the performer, but I can't really appreciate the performer's experience.

This book attempts to convey a bit of that. It is a populist primer to 'the hidden world of the pianist', as it's subtitled, and uses anecdotes, history, written examples and his own experience to try to show why the concert pianist has such a special regard.

As well as being a very knowledgeable music historian, Rosen is a witty writer, and the book speeds along. Some of it was above my head, despite the unacademic approach - I couldn't appreciate the written music, and would have to play recordings of the pieces to get close to understanding his point. He moves easily from funny anecdote to the philosophy of music, of which here's a fine example:

"...performance in public seems like the natural goal of the aesthetic philosophy that has dominated Western art and music since the eighteenth century. A work of art is supposed to have a value independent of its social function, and even of its role in the artist's biography, and the public concert is at once a metaphor for this independence and its demonstration in the economy of modern life. This independence may be to some extent a fiction, but it is indispensable to our idea of artistic creation.The work of music may be the expression of an individual sensibility, and we may say the same of a performance: but once published, once played, they have become public property. That is why we can maintain that a composer does not always know how best to interpret his own work. His knowledge of the piece may be more intimate at first, but he cannot control future performances, and his opinion of how to play it may be interesting but not absolutely privileged. We may say that the performer ought to realise the composer's intentions, but we must also admit that very often the composer, the poet or the visual artist does not fully understand his own intentions - at least, this is a doctrine of artistic composition that is as old as Plato."

I learnt plenty from this book - I was amazed at first at how pianists could play several pieces, totalling perhaps two hours, without reference to the score, whereas an orchestra mostly sight-reads. The act of memorising seemed an extraordinary feat, for something as complex as a Beethoven piano concerto or sonata, for example. Rosen clarified this for me by saying that by the time he'd reached 18, he knew most of the classical piano canon, even if he hadn't played it in concert. A child's mind, especially one so musically precocious, and relentlessly inquisitive, can memorise an awful lot very quickly, and once it has done so it remains. He states that he can play far more easily pieces he first knew as a teenager than pieces he learnt within the past year. This partly explains the achievement of Daniel Barenboim's recent performance of the whole Beethoven Sonata cycle, of which I saw four out of eight concerts. This was the fourth time Barenboim had played the full cycle, over a period of 45 years, but the memorising had been done when he was a child; at this age the focus is on interpretation and delivery.

Rosen laments the culture of music conservatories and contests, which focus the student upon the one or two major performances he has to make in a year, and that they can leave music school only knowing well the three pieces they have to play in examination at the end of each year. This culture, for obvious reasons, creates a conservative and narrow canon amongst young performers, which limited repertoire will make it hard for them to distinguish themselves later.

I can't say I got the most out of this book, there was too much that required at least some musical knowledge, but it wasn't impenetrable, and it should help me a little to appreciate the pianists I watch in future.


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